The pitfalls of pushing yourself for perfection


Sometimes, passing by a particular office block late at night, I spot lights on in the upper floor and the shadow of a man hunched over a desk.

It’s tempting to assume he works for an uncaring organisation that demands late hours and sleepless nights. But perhaps the tyrant is not in the boardroom. Perhaps they are in the head of the person burning the midnight oil.

That tyrant is often made up of a set of the irrational beliefs to the effect that one “must” do this or “should” do that to a standard of perfection. Which brings me to football and to an article by sports psychologist Martin Turner of Staffordshire University in the latest issue of The Psychologist.

Turner is an advocate of rational emotive behaviour therapy (REBT), which emphasises the dire effects on our lives of the irrational beliefs we have about ourselves, especially the “musts”, “shoulds” and “have tos”.

He quotes Brazilian goalkeeper Júlio César who, in 2013, made the perceptive – given the team’s subsequent performance in the World Cup – comment that “in Brazil, we always have to win, everybody knows that. It’s too much pressure.”

It’s that “have to win” that does the harm. In REBT, “wanting” to win is fine. What isn’t fine is convincing yourself that you “have” to win.

An athlete who is full of “nerves” before competing is likely to do less well than one who is calm and focused. Turner found that sports coaches recognise this, and welcome his emphasis on taking the “must” out of winning.

Changing the emotional climate

The aim is to take the irrational demand out of the player’s thinking. So the player moves from the irrational “I absolutely must win” to the rational “I really want to win, but it’s not the end of the world if I don’t.” That shift changes the whole emotional climate. You may be wondering whether it also helps get better results in sports. According to Turner, the research still has to be done to establish this, though athletes applying his approach have reported improvements in performance. His primary aim, though, is to help athletes reduce irrational thinking and its harmful side-effects.

He notes that former England manager Sven-Göran Eriksson said of penalty-taking that “It’s not easy to take a penalty when you have the nation relying on you. It is life or death.”

Turner comments: “If players approach penalties with this extreme attitude, it is little wonder that, of the ‘major nations’, England have the worst penalty shoot-out record.”

There is a great deal more to REBT than this. Yet the idea that we absolutely must achieve certain results is a key obstacle to our mental wellbeing, according to this therapy.

‘I must win every argument’

Take the belief that “I must win every argument I have with people who matter to me”. This sort of belief can lead to all-night (and I mean until dawn) arguments until the other person gives in from exhaustion: hardly a healthy behaviour. At the other extreme, it leads to complete withdrawal or passivity: better not to argue your corner at all than to argue and lose. A more healthy attitude might be: “I would like to win all my arguments, but I’ll settle for winning enough of them enough of the time.”

Another irrational belief (perhaps leading to those late nights at the office) would be: I must do well in every single aspect of a project, no matter what it takes. The person with this belief will find it very hard to achieve any peace because the demand is an impossible one to satisfy. The pursuit of the perfect might mean that all projects are late, perhaps to the point that they are useless. Or the fear of imperfection might be such that the person doesn’t try at all. Aiming for what is “good enough” is the antidote.

Try questioning the “musts” and the “shoulds” and see what happens. You might be pleased with the results.

Pádraig O’Morain is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Mindfulness on the Go. His mindfulness newsletter is free by email:

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